I’m sure the title tricked you (and that’s what it meant to do), but which assertion grabs your attention?
“Obama is a Radical Islamist Kenyan.”
“Obama is an American Born Christian.”
Most people gravitate towards the first statement, no matter how preposterous it may be. And although the statement is ridiculous, unsubstantiated and easily debunked, the truth is irrelevant in the court of public opinion.
When the crazy wing of the conservative base launched the accusation that Obama is not an American born citizen, every headline for weeks (depending on the news source and its political leanings) read something along the lines of, “Was Obama Born in the U.S.?” or “Obama was Not Born In Kenya.”
No matter what side of this nonsensical debate you were on, those headlines wielded so much power that people immediately accepted the statement that reinforced their own political preferences, the facts be damned.
Even after all reputable media outlets quickly shot down the charge that Obama was not born in the U.S., the debunking of the radical Islamist Kenyan myth actually reinforced the beliefs of many conservative Obama haters. In 2011, an amazing 51% of Republican primary voters believed President Obama was not born in the U.S.
Even more remarkably, in 2012, well after this “news” was done circulating, Dartmouth government professor Benjamin Valentino found that 64% of Republican respondents in a study still believed President Obama was born in another country.
So, why does the mass media have such a hard time correcting misperceptions that distort public opinion?
Research has shown that people are great at rejecting arguments and evidence that contradict our opinions. Ideological subgroups (liberals and conservatives) fail to update their beliefs when presented credible information that discredits their biases.
This is what political scholars call the backfire effect or confirmation bias: When your most dearly held beliefs are challenged and proven false by contradictory evidence, your original beliefs grow stronger. You can be presented with the facts, but most of the time they are ineffectual at correcting your misconceptions. Moreover, any attempt to educate often backfires and simply causes entrenchment in the original belief.
The basis of this problem lies in what psychologists call cognitive rigidity- a refusal to appreciate other people’s points of view that leads to unwillingness to change behavior. Once we have accepted what we perceive to be a plausible explanation for something, we develop a cognitive framework that only reinforces all of our prior conclusions despite any contradictory evidence presented.
As Ryan Holiday notes in his book Trust Me, I’m Lying, “The facts that built an original premise are gone, but the conclusion remains – the general feeling of our opinion floats over the collapsed foundation that established it.”
Let’s use the Michael Brown shooting as an example. What we now know from eyewitnesses is Michael Brown was unarmed and on the ground with his hands in the air when he was shot and killed by a police officer. There have been no eyewitness accounts of Brown attacking the officer or evidence he struggled to obtain the officer’s weapon.
But lets say that during the trial, evidence was produced showing Brown did try to grab the officer’s weapon and attack him. Would the opinion of Michael Brown’s supporters about the guilt of the police officer change? Research suggests it would not.
What makes it even harder for the press to change ludicrous misperceptions is the political polarization of the American public, a polarization for which the backfire effect is partially responsible.
Due to rapid advances in technology, we live in a time when news (and fake news) is easily accessible, simple to read and can go viral almost instantaneously. News gets to the public faster and only reinforces a person’s cognitive dissonance. What is worse is that the media actually pours gasoline on the fire – most of the time without malicious intent – because that’s their job!
In a hope to change public opinion by presenting actual news, the press doesn’t really change anybody’s views. You can’t just provide credible information to people anymore and debate has become almost pointless.
- “Don’t Quote Me On That”: New Standards For Legal Advertising(rocketlawyer.com)
- Will Scotland Break Away From The United Kingdom?(article-3.com)
- Why Ohio’s Josh Mandel Senate Candidacy Has National Consequences(article-3.com)